Dwight Eisenhower usually didn’t vote. When he did, he never told anyone about what or who he voted for. For years, people speculated about his political leanings. He was old school Army. His didn’t lean- he served. In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, offered him a crack at the vice presidency. Ike declined. In 1952, 18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden for a rally organized by a citizen’s committee for Ike. The event included messages from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable, all urging him to run for office. It ended in Irving Berlin leading a rendition of God Bless America. In his book Ike’s Bluff, author Evan Thomas detailed his response. To a friend, he wrote “I can’t tell you what an emotional upset it is for one to realize suddenly that he himself may be the symbol of that longing and hope.”
The next day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (retired), tentatively accepted the invitation to run for the office of president-as a Republican.
Less than a decade after he led the largest invasion in the history of mankind to defeat the most dangerous enemy in the history of mankind, Ike was sworn in as our 34th president. He assumed office during the war with Korea and ended it within a hundred days.
Ike hated politicians-Democrats and Republicans alike. He disliked the military brass at the Pentagon too. “I know better than any of you fellows about waste at the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut-because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time” he told an adviser. He hated grand-standers and “desk pounders”-having once worked for General Douglas MacArthur, the great grand-stander and desk pounder of American military history. He knew them when he saw them and he had no patience for it.
Ironically, Ike hated war. Not the way someone who didn’t know war hates war-out of fear or misunderstanding. He hated it because of his familiarity with it. As president, he avoided small military conflicts because he understood that whether or not a small conflict became a big one was really just a matter of chance. In the new world of nuclear power, our greatest adversary was taking territory and building ballistic missiles, launching polished satellites that flew over America, reflecting the sun’s light down for naked American eyes to see as they passed over head. Peace wasn’t just a goal. It was survival.
In his farewell speech, he warned of our industrial military complex, growing at an unsustainable rate-yet sadly, he understood why. “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight. Happily, I can say that war has been avoided.” he finished. He suffered the burden of the insurmountable stress of keeping the peace during the first time in the history of mankind when a failure to do so would have resulted in the end of civilization. It took it’s toll. He suffered a heart attack in 1955. And a stroke in 1957. He labored through constant, severe gastrointestinal pain. By the end, when he left office, escorted by a lone secret service car back to his home in Gettysburg, he was a shadow of the man he once was. He had given more to his country than anyone really knew. He was duty bound to hide it-the servant leader and soldier to the end.
Not since George Washington, had a president been demanded into office by the American people the way Ike was. And not since Washington, was a president’s greatest accomplishment navigating the catastrophically delicate waters of global piece the way Ike had. Ike’s resolve to maintain peace was the fulcrum that lifted the world from the edge of destruction. And he knew it.
Today, a day after another terrorist attack has successfully evoked a response from those seeking to fill the office Ike once filled, it’s fair to ask, which of them is worthy of his role. Is it the one that urges us to use religion as a means to identify areas for proactive policing? Is it the one that tells us that we need to wall America off from the outside and torture our enemies to keep us safe. Is it any of them that didn’t serve-not one day collectively-in uniform. When we look back through history at our truly great presidential behavior, it’s fair to be disappointed with our options. Because we’ve lost something in our search for our next leader-the notion of service.
There’s a generation just over the horizon with different values formed by different burdens though. One, like Ike’s, defined by war and conflict-less sensitive to the populous demagoguery common to those not grounded by the selfless principles of service. One that understands that the pursuit of power should be tempered by its purpose to aid our fellow man. One that has seen up close and personal the toll that torture, authoritarianism and reckless hate have on the human soul. Something happens to you when you see it. The way Ike did. The way we did.
This too will pass. And quietly if we’re smart. We’re struggling through the death spasms of a tired time where people who haven’t experienced the problems of today’s world are arguing the principles of a political debate that’s been dead for a generation. But change will come. Until then, heed Ike’s warning. “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Wherever this goes, be wary and watchful of where we place our power. If you can’t get it right, it’s best not to get it too wrong.
It finally happened. While I sat in my car during one of my soul crushing Southern California commutes, jammed into the I-15 freeway, paying my morning penance for living in the suburbs, it happened. On the radio, pundits were worked into a lather, clambering about the latest runaway victory of candidate Trump. Their tone was acceptance. Gone was the harsh warnings of the danger of nominee Trump or President Trump, dare we say. Gone was the disbelief or predictions of failure. Acceptance had seeped into their consciousness. And for the first time, I felt myself starting to normalize a Trump general election candidate-then a President Trump. I could feel myself preparing for what that might be like. Because that’s what we do.
We humans are capable of normalizing amazing things. We can put up with a lot, if we choose to. Years ago, deployed as a Naval Officer to Africa, my team built a camp in a remote location. Within days, a massive hive of killer bees infested the showers and stung us to death whenever we wanted to get clean. I remember one time in particular after I’d showered and endured a half dozen bee stings to the face, mumbling to a buddy heading the other direction, “At least I’m clean”. I was willing to deal with quite a bit of downside-repeated bee stings to the face, because I was so dirty. I felt it was a fair trade off. Get clean, or don’t get stung by bees. I had no third option. Now I was normalizing President Trump, because I felt like I had not other choice.
So there I was, sitting in my car, stuck in traffic, suffering through the bee stings to the face that was candidate Trump’s victory speech in Nevada. I started thinking, “maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to have that ass hole stick it to the Chinese…maybe he might finally strike a deal between Israel and Palestine…maybe he could bully congress into doing something for once” and then I caught myself. I was surrendering. And I’m not the only one. We have entered into dangerous territory.
Here’s some background. I grew up in Atlantic City. Donald Trump has been a part of my life for my entire life. My family has worked in his casinos. I used to watch his helicopter land on the pier on the beach that I worked on as an ocean rescue lifeguard in high school. He ran those businesses into the ground and got out, in the nick of time, Trump style. Atlantic City is for losers is likely what he would say. I don’t know him. I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I know plenty who have. And they all say mostly the same thing about their personal encounters with him. He seems like a nice guy. He makes you feel important. And he’s very gracious with his attention. That’s about all I really know about him aside from the cartoon character he’s been playing in the media the last few decades. As a guy, he sounds lovely. Of course, that’s also what people said about Saddam Hussein. About Joseph Stalin…about Hitler. Which brings us to the problem.
Trump isn’t Hitler. He’s not Stalin. He’s probably not even Putin. But people haven’t really figured out how to articulate why he shouldn’t be president. They scream louder and louder that he can’t or won’t win and like a cosmic sci-fi movie villain, he absorbs the negative energy and grows stronger with each word of malice. I’m done predicting that he won’t win. I’m done predicting anything because I’m sick of being wrong. I won’t tell you why he can’t be president. Because he certainly can be president. And if we’re not careful, he will. Instead, I’ll try another approach. I’ll tell you why he shouldn’t be president. But I’m going to do it in a way besides pointing to the fact that he’s Donald Trump. That’s clearly not working.
Here’s how we’ve tried so far.
He’s a chauvinist bigot.
He might be. He might not be. I don’t believe anything he says is sincere so it could all be an act-hold that thought. He’s a 70 year old white guy from New York who was born with a lot of money so he’s probably got a little of the old white guy thing going on that we white folks know many of our dad’s generation struggle with-prejudice and sexism. Sorry folks, that may be a little uncomfortable truth for some of us. The people who like Trump-angry white people-don’t care.
He’s a dishonest demagogue that will say anything to make you support him.
Congratulations, welcome to politics.
He’s a bully.
See last item.
He’s a manipulator.
See last two items.
He is a lousy businessman who has filed for bankruptcy four times.
That’s actually a lot of bankruptcies. But it’s a pretty normal practice and it was chapter 11, the type where you do it so the business lives to see another day. It’s not a smoking gun.
He’s a rich kid who got all his money from his father.
Ever hear of the Roosevelts? JFK?
He’s a draft dodger.
We’ve had one president in the last 50 years serve in combat. Thank you George H.W. Bush for your service.
You get the point. You can play this game all day long. It doesn’t work. Trump’s most brilliant talent is staying relevant in our ever shifting culture. He started with real estate and then moved into our consciousness as someone synonymous with simply being rich in the 80’s and 90’s. Then he morphed into a reality TV star and invaded social media and now he’s impregnated our political machine with the Trump brand.
When someone becomes that ubiquitous, they become a walking talking, tweeting, insulting, bullying, Rorschac test. People start to see in him what they want. For those feeling left behind by a changing economy, he’s a business man who will solve it. For those feeling marginalized by our changing culture, he’s going to kick out all the foreigners. For those scared of terrorists, he’s going to bomb the hell out of ISIS. For those of us who want to shout down inequality and bigotry, he’s someone to hate. He is different things to different people. Like scripture, if you stare at candidate Trump for long enough, he will tell you whatever you want. And there’s one thing you can’t argue about with someone. It’s their religion.
But that doesn’t mean we should get baptized by him. Here’s why.
There are three critically important dimensions to useful political thought. Effective political thinkers need be equally principled, empathetic and pragmatic. Looking back at candidate Trump’s public and private life experiences, he fails this test in an extremely dangerous and troubling way. More so than any person seeking the office of President of the United States in a long time, maybe ever. After 40 years in the public eye, it’s almost impossible to point to areas where he has been a part of something bigger than himself, built on a guiding principle that made other people’s lives-people he didn’t know or wouldn’t be in a position to receive something in return from-better.
He appears to be entirely devoid of anything that mimics empathy. Heads of government need to be able to feel the pain of the people they govern as if it were their own. That doesn’t mean that they have to be selfless or even charitable. It means that they have to have the capacity to care about the outcomes of other people. Candidate Trump fails.
He does have one thing in abundance-pragmatism. Unfortunately, pragmatism without empathy towards those you govern and not grounded in principle other than self promotion is powerfully dangerous. It’s that thing that the truly dark rulers of history seem to have in common- the ability to get things done without the troublesome headwinds of principle and care for others. It’s the recipe for how the governing of man has gone horribly wrong for thousands of years.
This is usually where supporters of one candidate start to throw out the flaws of the other candidates in response. But here is where that doesn’t really work for candidate Trump. Every other candidate, on some level, does better at the standards explained above. Here’s how you can tell. Take a look at how they’ve spent their life and then look at candidate Trump. Candidate Trump was named the president of his father’s $200M real estate firm in 1974, when he was 28, six years after he graduated from Wharton. What he’s done since, is on display for the public to see. At no point has he even appeared to serve someone else. And that’s hard to find, even for someone not running for president.
If you run the other candidates and recent presidents through that test, the difference is staggering. Hillary Clinton was one of 27 women in her graduating class from Yale Law School. She had a wealth of opportunity and chose the Children’s Defense Fund as her first professional role. Ted Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant who graduated from Harvard, was the editor of the Harvard Law Review and then served as a clerk for several federal judges including Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist. He’s horribly unlikable but he appears to actually believe in something other then himself. Bernie Sanders chooses to call himself a democratic socialist, something that has limited him his entire career until recently, because he believes in it. John Kasich has answered to the people of his state as the Governor of Ohio. Some are supporters. Some are not. But at a minimum, he appears to have governed with benevolent intent. President Obama, same a Cruz, son of an immigrant, Harvard graduate, became a community organizer. Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and then governor of California. JFK was a decorated war hero as the commander of PT-109. You can go down the list and point to times, whether you agree with them or not, that other candidates have served someone other than themselves.
But you can’t for Trump.
And this is what that means. If candidate Trump were to be President Trump, the first group of people that he will be responsible for serving, above his own interests, will be the entirety of the American people and by virtue of our standing as a global power, mankind. And that is as strong a case as anyone can make against anyone doing anything. There’s a lot at stake here. It’s not the time to get comfortable with candidate Trump. And if he is nominated by the Republican Party to run for office in the 2016 Presidential Election, it’s not because he’s right. It’s the death spasm of a scared, angry ideology that has poisoned the conservative mind of our country. And we should think that it’s as ridiculous now as we ever have. Because it is. It’s just a lot more dangerous.
The American political debate predates the political parties that have gone on to organize the centuries of scripted opposition that we have been conditioned to believe are required for successful government. It wasn’t always that way-almost, but not always. For part of one brief administration, we stood united as one political party, aligned in the celebration of our new found self governing zeal. Our days of unity were numbered though. The forces of division had already begun. The embryo of political opposition had embedded itself within the cabinet of our first president by way of two men whose collective ideas would chart the course for the first 50 years of our nation’s government. Tempered, they were critical to responsible governing. Un-tempered, they would have destroyed us.
The first Secretaries of State and the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton respectively found themselves at irreconcilable odds. They weren’t at odds because their political parties required them to be or their special interest groups funded them to be. They were at odds because they believed very different things about government at a time when the pavement of the walk that was our government was still wet. And the thoughts that would guide the path that would leave their footprints for all time to follow were important. Jefferson believed fiercely in the democratic republic who’s ideals he so clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence. He was the voice of our Revolution and the voice of the enlightened government it gave birth to. Hamilton, on the other hand, advocated for a government much more similar to the British form we had just cast off. We were in uncharted territory at the time. And many, like Hamilton believed that our new form would not work. They viewed Jefferson as an ideologue who’s vision and philosophy lacked practical application. We were new Americans at the time. Some believed in Hamilton’s view. Others, Jefferson. But those on both sides believed something else though. Something much more tangible than a philosophy of government. They believed in a man. They believed in George Washington.
George Washington was better than everyone at everything he did. At least it seemed that way. At 6’2 he was a giant for colonial America. He was the best horseman anyone who ever rode with him had ever seen, which for the day was the most important thing that a man could do well in the eyes of other men. He survived smallpox in his youth-forever inoculating him from the disease. He walked fearlessly among the sick, giving him an air of immortality. There were stories of his invincibility in battle as well, having had four holes shot in his red coat and several horses shot out from under him as a captain fighting as a Brit in the French and Indian War.
His daring conquests against the British Army had made him the most famous man in the new world. After being beaten out of New York and across New Jersey, losing half of his Army against the same British he once served, he launched one last resolute attack across the icy Delaware River from Philadelphia into Trenton, giving the colonials a daring victory to feed the spirit of our revolution for the winter of 1776 into 1777. He had every reason to retreat and regroup. He did not. He had bested the most powerful army the world had ever seen and won our freedom. He had rode out as president, the only president to ever do so, with an Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He was the human embodiment of our executive branch. And though he allowed his cabinet to explore the left and right limits of progress as a nation, mostly in the form of Hamilton and Jefferson’s bickering, Washington ensured that the footprints in the pavement that dried behind them would, at all times, be traveling forward. Writing to Jefferson in 1792, Washington rebuked,
“How unfortunate and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with a avowed enemies and insidious friends that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals. I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or to keep the parts of it together for if instead of laying our shoulders to the machine in which measures are decided on. One pulls this way and the other pulls that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried it must inevitably be torn asunder and in my opinion the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man will be lost, perhaps forever. “
This was Washington telling Jefferson to quit his partisan bickering and keep his eyes on the prize. It was not given nor received as a request. It was an order.
It was this resolve that the American people assigned their fates to. And in all things, it was Washington who they trusted. He begrudgingly signed on for a second term to see the thing through lest all that they work for be “torn asunder”. But even for him the politics and outcries of our national discourse would grow, and his second term, found him more open to criticism, yet stoic and resolved as ever to lead his people to stability, all be it miserable and exhausted. Jefferson would resign as Secretary of State the following year and run for president unsuccessfully at the end of Washington’s term and then successfully four years later. Hamilton would be killed in an 1804 a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr at the age 49. Within two decades, the Federalist party he founded, which advocated for a strong executive and a national bank, would be gone. The debate moved on to other issues.
Throughout our history, America has had great variance in our experience with the heads of our government. The one’s we remember well, tend to come in two flavors. Some serve, by chance, at a time of great significance and their character, intellect and executive savvy serve as the fulcrum for which the American people lift themselves from crisis or pivot towards social change. This is Lincoln. This is FDR. This is JFK. These are men defined by crisis and change whose will and guidance have preserved our nation when perhaps our future was not so certain. Others we remember are the great leaders, above the political fray, whose astute judgement moved us forward, away from crisis and on to a stronger future. This is Jefferson, Jackson, Eisenhower and of course Washington. Though many of these men lived through crisis prior to taking office, something about their experience enabled them to wield power effortlessly with an unquestioning obedience from the American people and in turn from their government. What they had is what we so desperately crave now-the unwavering trust and allegiance of the American people.
As we assemble to pick our new head of state this next year, we must measure our options wisely, though I fear we’ve already lost this contest to the same forces of dissent present in Washington’s cabinet 230 years ago. The great leaders of crisis mean hard times, death and war. Those are the leaders you can’t and hope never to choose. So in our hearts we long for the transcendent leader who can stay above the fray and unite us in our march forward towards continued peace and prosperity. The leader who, though forces at work move to pull the very fabric of our discourse apart, stands silently above it, holding watch over our government and our people, as Washington did when Jefferson and Hamilton had their earthly squabbles. This is what we long for. And for those of us not imprisoned by the dangerous vigor of blind ideology, this is what we vote for.
There’s a problem though. And it’s not going to fix itself over the next 12 months. The fray today is too big. Our political factions are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War, arguing with great passion, things that simply don’t matter any more. Our all powerful media knows no other way than to fan the flames of outrage and discontent, providing heat and oxygen to a flame that, if it were up to the people alone, would have long died out. And those who might rise above it, the great men and women of our day, understandably, aren’t interested.
Things look dim. We are hungering for someone, anyone, who isn’t poisoned by the sickness of our political discourse. We want it so badly that we’re clinging to candidates, the “anti-establishment” ones on both sides, that are comically unsuited for the title of leader of the free world just to stave off accepting that we are exactly where we are. We are stuck.
Though I commend our current administration for driving needed progress in narrow, long overdue areas, I also regret that the division in our nation has grown. Our executives over the past 30 years have operated within the fray, not above it. Which leaves us where we are. For four more years at least, bumping along the seabed of our potential through the irrelevant debate of the last 50 years. For the last ten elections, there has been a Bush or a Clinton on the general or primary election ticket for President of the United States in nine of them. We are stuck in not just an ideological loop, but a literal one. One that, because of its incessant focus on “shrink vs grow government” leaves us paralyzed and incapable of addressing the critical problems of our government insolvency, entitlement reform and urban decay. We are incapable of addressing the impact our transition from manufacturing to services and technology has had on our workforce-a change that started 40 years ago. We’ve been flatfooted for decades. Now the sickness has seeped into our foreign policy, an impassable barrier that once stood to ensure we faced our external problems as a united front of American will. Head’s of state now address our congress without the consent of the president. Things are dim. But fear not. There’s a light on the horizon of our long, dark political night. Change is on its way.
The 2012 Presidential election was the first one, by law, that my generation would have been able to participate in, as a running member. My generation, the one that had internet in college. The one that was too young to care about the color of people’s skin or their sexual orientation. The one that spent all of our 20’s and most of our 30’s fighting the longest war our country has ever seen, only to likely have to fight it again in our 40’s. The generation whose social security checks won’t be there when we retire at the trajectory we’re going. My generation who will live to watch our children grow up in the global climate impacted by three hundred years of industrial growth. My generation who has participated in a workforce whose wages haven’t increased since we’ve been in it. My generation is coming. It may be a bit. But our votes count. And soon we will be there with more than our votes. Not those of us who rushed into the political life because we were drawn to it as a vocation. They’re already there, driving the churn of the irrelevant debate. But those of us tried by something else. Tried by the crisis and failure of those that came before us. Tried by decades of war and economic struggle. We are coming. And real change will come with us.
A few weeks ago I read a tweet with a link from author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s appearance on the Daily Show. In it she said, “I think if I were young now, the thing I would do more than anything is to fight for an amendment to undo citizens united.”
Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who has written on FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys and others. About 13 of the 900 or so pages of her book Team of Rivals was turned into the movie Lincoln by Steven Spielberg. She is unquestionably considered one of the foremost American historians of our time. Which means when she talks about great American causes I tend to listen. But what about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling from 2010 has drawn the attention of Kearns and many others as the great risk to democracy of our time? To answer that, you have to do some digging on how we got here and understand where “here” actually is.
Campaign financing regulation actually predates our country. There’s a funny story of how George Washington won an election in the 1750’s to the house of Burgess because he handed out alcohol and food at the poles. It was actually pretty normal at the time. Virginia passed a law shortly after outlawing the practice. By the middle of the 19th Century, America began to pass laws that prohibited politicians from demanding contributions from civil service workers and then appointing them to positions based on the heartiness of their contribution. Hard to imagine it took 75 years or so to figure that out but you have to remember, we were 1st market movers when it comes to world powers and democracy. We had some things to figure out. Around the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt drove legislation that curbed corporate and private participation in the same type of patronage actions. By the middle of the 20thcentury we got around to getting organized unions out of mobilizing their workers to fund campaigns as a prerequisite for membership. So by the 1970’s we had mostly eliminated the affronts to democracy that lesser developed nations still suffer from. From there, it got a little more complicated.
The Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974 (FECA) formed the basis for much of the current federal campaign laws. It included limits on contributions to federal candidates and political parties, a system for disclosure and voluntary public financing for presidential candidates. The Act tried to impose campaign spending limits but the Supreme Court threw it out 2 years later. It also created a governing body, the Federal Election Committee. So by the 70’s, there were limits on contributions, transparency on those contributions and a governing body to enforce the rules. There were still no limits on campaign spending either by a candidate or corporation for support of a candidate’s party or cause though.
In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act was signed into law. This act materially accomplished two things. It eliminated “soft money” from party finance. Soft money is a term used for political party general purposes like party building “activities” that weren’t subject to regulation. The second thing that McCain-Feingold did, and this is actually what Citizens United overturned, was eliminate corporate funding of issue advocacy ads; those ads which name an actual candidate within 30 or 60 days of an election. Corporations could still fund ads that advocated for conservative or progressive causes all they wanted through third party groups like the Koch Bros, American’s for Prosperity. But as a corporation or union, you couldn’t “pick your guy” and bank roll him. And though the spirit wasn’t to advocate for a specific group, you could fund groups that said or even called themselves “Hillary is destroying America”. Which happened, regularly and legally. Which means that prior to 2010, corporations and private organizations could and did already contribute massive amounts of money to finance political actions.
So if it didn’t create corporate participation in politics, what did the Supreme Court actually do in 2010? Well it can get complicated but, materially, it did two specific things. It removed the ban on independently funded adds 30-60 days before an election and opened up direct funding for corporations and unions for express advocacy ads. It had some second order effects on the characteristics of the groups that could organize to raise funds for an election but the important part is that it streamlined the process for corporate and union participation in funding. Which has triggered the outcry. But there’s a lot of noise in the outrage, and as a result, there’s a chance to miss the signal in the noise. Because when you look at the data, something doesn’t match up here.
There has been, without question a massive increase in campaign spending since Citizens United in 2010. But if you look closer at the data behind campaign finance, we see it actually predates 2010, substantially. In 1996, we spent about $21 million on federal elections, through regulated channels. By 2004, that amount rose to $340M. That’s a 1500% increase within the cycle of two presidential elections. But that actually doesn’t tell the full story. If you count the “soft money” explosion that led to McCain-Feingold, spending in the 96 election rose to almost $300M, several times more than any other year. Though McCain Feingold eliminated that “flavor” of spending, it appears that we couldn’t un-ring that dinner bell. By the following presidential election in 2004, outside spending for federal elections had increased 900 percent. That’s 900 percent in four years, six years before Citizens United.
So when you actually look at the path of historical spending above, and also take into consideration that the “soft money” from the mid 90’s isn’t accounted for in that data, we see something very clearly. And it didn’t happen in 2010. Something very different happened about 20 years ago, and the impact has been an explosion in spending on elections. And as big as the increase has been since Citizens United, it’s actually nowhere near the jump we saw between 1996 and 2004. So what happened in 1996? Quite a bit actually.
The day I enrolled at the United States Naval Academy in the summer of 1995, I was issued a computer. That computer was different than all the computers that the Naval Academy had issued in the previous decades to its thousands of students in one very important way. It connected to the internet. At the same time, the digital cable revolution was crossing America increasing the average channels of cable offering from dozens to hundreds. Fox News and MSNBC launched the next summer. So about the time when our campaign spending began to explode, something else was exploding too; the amount and methods for which we began to consume information.
Here’s some data. In 1996, the average American spent about 500 hours watching cable TV a year. By 2010, that number had more than doubled to about 1100 hours a year. We also watched network TV, where “mature” information lives, about 300 hours less. You can also add in 200 hours a year on the internet that didn’t exist at all prior to 1996. And here’s the kicker, according to a study by the mobile measurements and platform company Flurry, you can add another 800 hours a year on smartphones. Which means that we spend more than twice the time consuming information today then we did 20 years ago. Which means one thing. There’s a lot more money to be made off of the American attention span than there used to be. And there’s a lot more competition to get it.
Taking a breath, a calm step backward and an objective look at the data, and we start to see what’s at work here: economics. In order for a market to exist, there has to be demand. Prior to 1996, the demand for information, political or otherwise was relatively small. We had newspapers, magazines and a handful of television channels. Over the past 30 years though, technology has changed that opportunity. And as a result, investment in the media world has also changed. Prior to 1985, corporate investment in media kept pace with the general economy. After 1985, that changed. By 1995, communications industry spending grew at 150% of the pace of the economy. By 2014, growth in media spending had nearly doubled our economic growth rate. And we were off to the races.
If you look at the type of spending that has blown up, it’s what is referred to as independent expenditures. In lay terms, it’s money that comes from somewhere other than the candidates or parties directly like wealthy individuals, corporations or Political Action Committees (PACs). Independent expenditures actually account for over 90% of the increase in spending. And again, it started almost a decade before Citizens United with a 1000% increase from 2000 to 2004. If you pair that finding with the advent of the information consumption age it leads you to one very strong conclusion. Massive amounts of money have flowed into the federal campaign system over the last twenty years for one very good reason. There’s actually something to spend it on that works.
Ask yourself, what in the world would you have been able to spend $1 billion of advertising money on in 1980? How many network TV ads or mailers could you send? How many people could you compel to go knock on doors? Not that many. Which brings us to as close to a smoking gun as you’re going to get for the cause of our massive increase in campaign spending. Which leads us back to the question of Citizens United and what to do about it.
The exercise with McCain Feingold has taught us a fairly valuable lesson. Now that there’s a mature market for profiting off of political expression, efforts to close it down through finance reform serve mostly to change the flavor of money flowing in. We can squeeze the balloon, but unless you pop it, it’s still going to hang around. Which leads us to the next logical question. How do we pop the balloon? Well, we actually can’t. If there is demand, and it is legal, there will be money to invest. Even further, the billion dollars we spent on the election directly in 2012, is merely a fraction of the total media market that is, in some part being fueled by the content of political discourse. Which means that even if we found a way to completely abolish political spending altogether, it wouldn’t put out the fire. The 24-hour news cycle, social media markets and talk radio are a hell of a lot bigger than the $1 billion industry. The six biggest media companies in the country, GE, Viacom, Disney, Newscorp, CBS and Time Warner had just under $280 billion in revenue in 2010. The money being raised for campaign financing isn’t driving our media and how they choose to market and display content. Because it’s not the campaign money that they’re after. It’s our attention. And as long as we humans are susceptible to focusing on things that affirm our beliefs or outrage us, then the current dialogue isn’t going anywhere and neither is the media market it fuels.
So if it’s not the money, what is the great evil that we’re trying to shout down right now? What is the Doris Kearns Goodwin advocating for in the form of a Constitutional Amendment? Remember, Constitutional Amendments are big deals. They do things like outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, allow women to vote, ban drinking, allow drinking, let us speak freely, have due process, carry assault rifles. When we amend the Constitution, it needs to yield an outcome. Which is why it’s not easy to do. As for the issue of campaign finance, I think we can all agree that there’s something that feels unclean about the combination of large sums of money and the democratic process. But it’s still fairly regulated and we’re not actually accusing anyone of outright fraud of corruption here. So what is the problem? It’s actually a pretty big one and it’s been happening for a few decades.
The problem isn’t that we’re buying our candidates. The problem is that we’re subjugating them, and not with the will of the people as they ought to be. And the result is the polarization of our two political parties. Over the last 40 years, democrats and republicans have increasingly voted only democratic and only republican more and more. In 1970 if you were in the United States Senate, the majority of a party voted the same way on legislation 27% of the time. Which was good, because when you wanted to get things passed, you had the opportunity to convince reasonable people in both sides of the party to agree. In 2014, the majority of a party voted the same way 70% of the time. Which means, quantitatively we’re 250% more polarized now than we were 40 years ago. Which is a problem. Because it means our politicians used to put a lot more thought and a lot more consideration into their positions
If it’s not campaign financing that they’re afraid of, then what exactly is it that’s driving our politicians to take so few risks? That one’s pretty clear. It’s fear. Fear of a media market that has long since outgrown the need for campaign spending and has since moved on to the more fruitful harvest of outrage, conflict and dissent. If you think that’s an overstatement, consider this. The first Republican Presidential Primary debate in the 2016 election was the highest viewed cable program in the history of cable television. There’s blood in the water now and if you step out of line against the base, someone is going to market the outrage immediately and on an inescapable scale. So you don’t, because you want to keep your job, which unfortunately isn’t the goal of our government. A politician wanting to keep his job isn’t a new phenomenon though. It’s as old as the institution of democracy. What is new, is the scope and scale of the information engine capable of taking it from them.
So do we mobilize and advocate for a Constitutional Amendment as Goodwin said? While it’s likely that eliminating some level of the spending in campaigns won’t hurt, I think it’s also fair to say it won’t solve the problem. There’s a wild fire burning and though the Supreme Court poured gas on it in 2010, it didn’t light the fire. And it’s only a matter of time before that fire doesn’t need the fuel of campaign finance at all and provides us with candidates who draw eyeballs instead of money.
Of the 20 Americans that have officially announced their candidacy for President of the United States for the 2016 election, three have served on active duty in the United States armed forces. One, Lindsey Graham (R) was a JAG (military for lawyer) in the Air Force. One, Rick Perry (R), was a cargo pilot in the post Vietnam era Air Force. One, Jim Webb (D), is a real life honest to goodness bona fide war hero, having been awarded the Navy Cross (one step down from the Medal of Honor) Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. Which means that of those who have raised their hand to participate in the pursuit of our country’s highest office of public service, 15% of them have served in our armed forces; 5% in war. Though that may seem low, and it certainly is relative to previous presidential races, it’s actually more than representative of our overall population base with respect to military service. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, presently, about 7% of Americans have ever served on active duty in the military. And so we should be somewhat satisfied by our turnout of candidates. Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though. Perhaps because we hold the office to a higher standard. Perhaps because we value military service differently than other vocations when it comes to presidentiality. As usual though, if we take a look at the history behind it, we can gain some perspective on how much this really matters.
Does military service matter? At the highest level, there’s an interesting pattern that makes logical sense when you take some time to think about it. We’ve had three presidents who have served in the highest ranks during a time of war and have therefore met what we would consider to be the most relevant prior experience to being commander in chief. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower all were, in whatever historically appropriate capacity possible, the highest ranking officer engaged in the highest level of combat during our three most consequential armed conflicts. Of the 24 years those three men served as president, a total of 6 months was spent at war, the sole contribution to our war history being the 186 days it took for Ike to pull the plug on Korea. Now, there’s a case to be made that those men had seen war and therefore had no stomach for more of it. Which we know from their memoir’s is at least a little true. What probably played more of a factor was simple chronology though. Being “General of the Army” is not a young man’s game. So if you were doing it at the time of war, and you went on to become president, you did so in a very short period of time, within the scope of a decade in each case. We tend to steer clear of large scale war within the scope of the same generation if we can help it. And so the requirement for lofty military command to qualify a presidential candidate for the job is not one that history supports.
If we flip the question around and ask what was the prior military experience of our most effective commanders in chief, we get a somewhat surprising answer. For one, we actually didn’t have a president during our first important war, the American Revolution. So when we look at those who played critically tactical roles as President, the list is quite short. It includes two men with exactly zero days of active duty service in the military. Lincoln and FDR were, head and shoulders above the rest, the most important and successful commanders in chief to ever hold the office of President. When you think about the scope and scale of their burden, it’s remarkable all that they were able to accomplish. Lincoln waged war a stone’s throw from the White House personally transmitting orders to generals in the field from the War Department Telegraph room. FDR engaged daily with a joint allied staff on strategy in Europe and the Pacific until the day he died. The decisions these men both made, regularly, are unequaled in their complexity and their impact on the nation and the world. Neither ever wore a uniform.
History makes a pretty strong case. Military service is a poor predictor of performance as commander in chief. So does it matter at all? If not as a qualification to lead the military, then what does it tell us? Does it tell us a candidate is dedicated to a life of service? Perhaps, but to be honest, agree with their politics or not, the list of 20 or so names on this candidate list includes hundreds of years of public service not specific to the military. So, it’s not really about service either. But it is about something. To be clear its actually about two things.
First, it’s a validation that at some point in their life, a candidate has done something that took some grit. Of the three war-time deployments that I had, two were with what we’ll call elite units. The third, the one that I’m least likely to tell war stories about at parties, was with what we would call a “conventional” unit. That deployment, by a country mile, was the one that absolutely beat me down the most. It was brutal relentless and absolutely representative of what most of our men and women in uniform experience when they deploy. So when we see someone who has served, we can say with confidence, that at some point in their lives, they lived through a truly trying experience. Which is something to benchmark them with when so much of everything else that we see out of them feels less genuine and more contrived. Military service is real. And there’s no way to hide from the “suck”. When you look at this field of 20, it definitely feels light on grit. But maybe that’s just from where I’m sitting.
The other thing that prior military service does, and this is more relevant for war time service, is that it validates resiliency. Which is actually entirely different than being a hero. There’s something to the notion that heroism is less important than recovery. My experience during the 14 years of war that we’ve been engaged in is a fairly common one for those that served. I saw less “action” than those who served in the worst of it, yet more than those that managed to serve in more peripheral roles. Of the 20 or so months I spent in active war zones, I can clearly count two instances where I legitimately thought that I was going to die. Some level of danger and vigilance were constants but those moments where I actually thought that I wasn’t getting out of it were rare. And frankly, the reason I did was because of luck and other people, not heroism or skill. The fall out of those events was not necessarily contributory to a life well lived either. That which does not kill us…sometimes leaves us with nightmares, anxiety and a propensity to self medicate. There’s something important that follows though. We’re beginning to talk about this more these days but we used to ignore it entirely. It’s the recovery that matters. The richest part of the human experience is the walk back to the path our life was on when something knocks us off of it. And so for men like James Webb, it’s less about the citation from his Navy Cross, which I encourage you to read, and more about what he no doubt went through in the years after he returned from war to live the worthy and full life that he has. It’s not that you can’t get those experiences without serving. War simply tends to provide those that experience it with more acute opportunities to survive.
With all this in mind, what should we be considering when it comes to military service and our presidential candidates? I think it’s the following question. What did a candidate do with the prospect of military service? For some, because of the time in which they lived and the paths that their lives have taken, the opportunity to serve simply never materialized as a serious consideration. And that’s ok. Lincoln and FDR show that. But for others, the prospect of service was a question that couldn’t be avoided, like those of the “Greatest Generation”. Of the eight presidents that held office after WWII, all of them actively served in some capacity in the military during the war. A little closer to home for this election, there’s the question of Vietnam service. What did a candidate do with prospect of serving in Vietnam? Did they pursue it? Did they leave it to fate? Or did they run from it? I think it’s fair to put the last of those three choices into the “not suitable” bucket. But that’s just my opinion. And it’s an opinion informed by asking that one critical question of what a candidate did with the prospect of service. The snapshot in time that will be the 2016 election is as such that we ought to be slightly fine with the lean yield of the answer to that question. But the future will likely hold a very different outcome. Here’s why.
My generation of service member has been at war a long time. For many of us, we spent our whole professional careers at war. I was deployed when the war started and finished my active duty career months before the end of combat operations in Iraq. Our chance to participate in a new life of service is coming. And when it does, the question of the prospect of service will become much more important. My generation has been knocked far off of life’s path and for those of us fortunate to make the long journey back to it, there will be a calling to serve again. We’ve seen much, sacrificed more and fear little. And our time is coming. So when 2024 rolls around or maybe even 2020, ask yourself that question with regard to your candidate of choice. What did they do with the prospect of service? Because what it tells of my generation is important. And we’re getting closer to the door every day.